More Than Women’s Work

By permission of Letty Russell, 2006.

There is something rather intimate about sorting through, preserving and arranging another person’s papers.  I came to know Letty Russell in a more personal way, handling papers that she herself handled.  I not only worked through a myriad of syllabi related to her time as a professor at Yale Divinity School, but also Letty’s own handwritten notes from conferences, photos taken during informal gatherings, and even a bag of women’s liberation buttons.  Although Letty passed away in 2007, her papers have given me the opportunity to “meet” her in a way that would not have been possible otherwise.  Through this experience I have come to understand that interacting with archival material is a unique opportunity to come know an individual, even if that person is no longer living.

A portion of the Russell collection as housed in the Burke Library Archives.

Not only have I come to know Russell more closely as a scholar, I have also begun to appreciate my own indebtedness to her and women like her.  Russell intentionally built relationships with other female scholars through teaching and collaboration.  Her co-teachers included Katie Cannon, Shawn Copeland, and Kwok Pui Lan.  In addition to teaching in partnership, there were a bevy of female scholars with whom Russell collaborated on publications and developed working relationships with through correspondence.  Notably, there is a plethora of material in this collection on the Dictionary of Feminist Theologies Russell and her partner Shannon Clarkson co-edited.

As a woman and as a doctoral student in New Testament with interests in feminist and liberationist hermeneutics, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of the struggles which women like Russell had to overcome to earn their places in the academy, the church and the world.

Dialogue of the Asian and Asian American Women in Theology and Ministry in San Francisco, 1992.

For example, Letty began her career in education at the East Harlem Protestant Parish in the early 1950’s and continued to serve there through 1968.  In a parish context, Christian education, then was and often still today is considered “women’s work.” In order to gain legitimacy for her position Russell became one of the first women to receive a degree from Harvard Divinity School and was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church, USA.  Although she had already completed a doctorate and was ordained, there is early correspondence in the collection that addressed her not as Rev. Dr. Russell, but as Mrs. Hoekendijk.  Russell married Johannes C. (“Hans”) Hoekendijk, professor of World Christianity at Union Theological Seminary, in 1970, and lived with him at UTS until his death in 1975.

Convocation Jubilee at Yale Divinity School, 1982.

In moving from work primarily in the church to work primarily in the academy, Russell moved from one male-dominated set of institutions to another in which the education field continued to be perceived as “women’s work.”  When Russell was being reviewed for tenure at Yale Divinity School she insisted that, if she were to receive tenure, that it would be in the theology, not the education, field.  Russell believed that it was only through the legitimacy provided by the theological field that she would have the platform through which to continue to address feminist and liberationist questions.  Russell became a full Professor of Theology in 1985 and remained at YDS until 2001.

I am struck by a deep sense of gratitude for feminist and liberationist scholars like Russell that have made my own work as a woman and a scholar possible.  I am hopeful that this collection will provide access to Russell as a women, theologian, minster and educator that has the power to continue to influence future generations of women and men toward a time in which education will no longer be disparaged as merely “women’s work.” 

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